02/23/2009 12:00AM

A game of peaks and valleys

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - Before observers go all mushy about what a good week Jay Em Ess Stable just had at Santa Anita, what with the victories of emerging older star Rail Trip and the 3-year-old gelding Scored along with promising performances by the maidens Off the Wall, Supermodel, and Stash, stable manager Samantha Siegel would suggest that everyone take a deep breath and clear the tracks. The roller coaster will be heading this way again.

Yes, Rail Trip was impressive last Friday in winning an allowance race that should vault him into some kind of stakes test very soon. A 4-year-old son of Jump Start, Rail Trip has raced just four times for Mace Siegel, daughter Samantha, and trainer Ron Ellis, and the sky would seem to be the limit.

Predictably, in the wake of the victory, the Siegels and Ellis have been swatting away suggestions that they run right back in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 7. The idea is intriguing, but the reality flies in the face of past performances. The Siegels have never been known as foolhardy swashbucklers with their horses, and Ellis, an old soul at 48, makes no apologies for his conservative approach.

Besides, these are the same people who said no thanks to the Breeders' Cup in 2004 with their unbeaten 2-year-old gelding Declan's Moon, even when the Juvenile at Lone Star Park seemed ripe for the taking. The roll of the dice paid off, and Declan's Moon ended up winning the Hollywood Futurity and a divisional championship. In his first start of 2005, he won the Santa Catalina Stakes and seemed on his way down the Kentucky Derby trail.

"This game doesn't let you enjoy things for too long," Samantha Siegel said this week. "We went from congratulations on the Santa Catalina to a day and a half later waiting around for X-rays. Just like that, we were out."

Declan's Moon returned to racing after knee surgery, but he was never the same, and was retired last fall to Merryland Farm in Maryland.

The events of last week were balanced, in terms of karma, by a tough-luck beginning of the season for the Siegel stable. First, their Kentucky Derby hopeful Believe in Hope, beaten a nose by champion Midshipman when third in the Norfolk Stakes, had to be sent to the farm when he did not bounce back well enough from an illness that kept him out of the Breeders' Cup last October. Then, in his first start of 2009, their Meadowlands Cup winner Arson Squad bled while trying to win the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream.

Arson Squad is being pointed for the Gulfstream Park Handicap in March, while Believe in Hope is still on the farm, awaiting another evaluation by Ellis.

"For lack of a better word, he just lost his mojo when he got sick," Siegel said. "He's a horse who's always friendly, right at the front of his stall. He got very dull, just standing at the back. I coaxed him forward and tried to give him carrots, but that was like pulling teeth."

The real heartbreaker came the morning of Feb. 7, when the Siegels had to scratch their up-and-coming 3-year-old filly Navigator from the Las Virgenes Stakes, a race headlined by the return of champion Stardom Bound. Even though the ankle injury was minor, the timing was disastrous.

"I cried when I heard," Siegel said. "It was such a shame. She was training better than Rail Trip, and I think she was going to do something very big that day. I don't know if she would have beaten Stardom Bound, but she sure would have made her work harder."

Navigator underwent surgery last week.

"They said the chip was smaller than it looked on the X-ray, and that it came right off the top," Siegel said. "Ninety days and then she can come back. You know the story. Even if she had no hiccups whatsoever she might make it back at the end of Del Mar, but you know how that goes."

After such a stew of mixed fortunes, Siegel and her father can't be blamed for thinking twice about wheeling an untested horse right back into a large Santa Anita Handicap field at 1 1/4 miles, with a million-dollar purse to further heighten the competitive fervor. Still, Rail Trip has been charismatic from the start, even though that start didn't come until deep into his 3-year-old season last November.

"In those other races, he'd come back with his neck bowed, like 'I'm hot stuff,' " Siegel noted. "But the other day, he came into the walking ring like that, neck bowed and prancing. It was, 'Look at me. I'm king of the world!'

"With him being unproven, though, you sure don't want to break his spirit," Siegel added. "I wish the timing was better for the Santa Anita Handicap. He's been out of sync for all the top races. When he ran the first time I said, 'Well, that's not bad. Only a year later than we planned.' But when you finally get there, and this is what happens, I guess it's worth waiting for."